OPINION polls reveal a public fed up with governmental gridlock and disappointed with the two major-party candidates. As a result, Ross Perot now seems likely to exert a major impact on the election, perhaps throwing it into the House of Representatives.
Voters are looking in the wrong place for a solution to political deadlock. The real cause of continuing stalemate at the federal level is divided government. Since Richard Nixon's election in 1968, the norm has been to force Republican presidents to deal with a Congress controlled, at least in part, by the Democrats. We have experienced unified party control of the White House and Congress for only four of the last 24 years. The Democrats have controlled the House of Representatives throughout this peri od (indeed, without interruption since 1955); apart from a brief period of Republican control under President Reagan, the Senate has also been consistently in Democratic hands.
Under such circumstances, the normal conflicts between the branches resulting from the separation of powers are exacerbated by partisan posturing. Democratic leaders in Congress avoid any action that would strengthen the president in the next election. Similarly, for a Republican president to endorse Democratic initiatives is to build up the opposition party's candidates for Congress, some of whom also constitute potential opponents in the next presidential election.
Divided government has its origins in the rise of split-ticket voting, which has benefited incumbent legislators. Incumbents' careful attention to district needs and skillful use of the franking privilege virtually guarantee a high degree of name recognition and a favorable image among voters. Incumbents often are unopposed for reelection or face weak and poorly funded challengers. More realistic voters would take constituency service for granted in all candidates, as the desire to be reelected virtually
guarantees that incumbents will look out for the interests of their districts.
Once this is understood, there is much to be said for straight-ticket voting. Giving control of the White House and Congress to a single party will not entirely eliminate conflict between the branches, but it will give effective power to a group of people in basic agreement on the solutions to a wide range of problems.
THE Republican and Democratic parties offer distinct alternatives on most issues, from the deficit to urban riots. Contrary to the view prevailing among many current voters, ours is a very responsive political system. When voters send a clear message, as in 1932, 1964, or 1980, the results can be dramatic. By contrast, when voters are ambivalent on a number of issues, electoral results will typically reflect their indecision. To break the political deadlock at the federal level all voters really have to do is make a clear choice between the parties.
When the same party controls both the White House and Congress, there is no one else to blame for policy failures. Voters disillusioned with the party in power can "throw the rascals out" and give the opposition an opportunity to govern. This is pretty much what happened in 1980, when voters elected Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter and gave the Republicans control of the Senate for the first time since Eisenhower's first term. While such instances are rare under the American system, constitutional obstacl es may be less important here than voters' unwillingness to think in partisan terms.
By contrast, under divided government, each party can blame the other for policy failures while claiming credit for whatever seems to be going right. This is what happens most of the time, and it is at the heart of what has alienated voters. Even so, at least President Bush can draw on support within his own party to sustain a veto, and thus can block some initiatives while forcing compromises on others. Given a Congress controlled by their own party, either Mr. Bush or Bill Clinton could govern effectiv ely.
The election of Ross Perot is a prescription for more conflict between the branches, not less. Mr. Perot would have no base of party support within Congress. For all his pledges to sit down and work out a consensus with congressional leaders, in reality Perot would be dealing with a constitutionally independent branch of government whose members look elsewhere to secure their reelection and who owe him no natural allegiance whatever. Voters looking to Perot to bring an end to governmental gridlock would do better to make a clear choice between the Republican and Democratic parties.